A Profiler’s Perspective on the Serial Killer Clown
FBI profiler Robert Ressler had privileged access to John Wayne Gacy.
Posted Apr 07, 2021 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams
A six-part true crime docuseries on one of the most infamous serial killers in America has been streaming recently on the Peacock platform. John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise starts with an interview he agreed to do in 1992, and parts of it are scattered throughout. A longtime correspondent of Gacy’s arranged it, but to get the prison's cooperation, Gacy stipulated that it be done via a friend of his in the FBI. Before I even saw the interviewer, I knew the voice: former FBI profiler Robert Ressler. I’d once asked him about his memorable cases and among them was his experience with the so-called “Killer Clown.”
Late in 1978 in Des Plaines, Illinois, Gacy was linked to a missing boy, Rob Piest, who clearly had not run away. Eventually, detectives got a search warrant for the reeking crawlspace under his house and discovered decomposing body parts. Lots of them, with many comingled. He’d murdered at least 33 young men and had buried 29 of them under or around his house. When he ran out of room, he dumped the rest in the Des Plaines River. Piest was among them.
Gacy, a successful contractor known for his political connections and for entertaining sick kids as Pogo the Clown, was convicted of the murders. He was scheduled for execution. As he sat awaiting his fate, he received many requests for on-camera interviews. He declined, despite expressing interest in telling his side, but he let Ressler conduct this one. He’d spoken to Ressler on several occasions and considered him a friend. Ressler let Gacy think whatever he wanted about their relationship, as long as he kept talking. He suspected Gacy had more victims. The trick would be to get around his stance of denial (despite his original acceptance of guilt). This was not a guy whose conscience bothered him. He didn't necessarily want to present his side so much as replace the narrative with a self-serving lie.
Ressler had learned the psychological principles involved in behavioral profiling from Howard Teten and Pat Mullany, founders of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. "They started organizing people for this program in 1969,” he said, “and when the FBI Academy opened in 1972, that's when the unit really got established. I joined them in ‘74." By then, he’d been a Special Agent for four years. "When they opened the Academy, they had different departments, like a university, and I was recruited into the BSU."
He remained in the unit for 16 years, helping to develop and implement the practice of profiling. He retired in August 1990. By this time, he’d introduced several programs that contributed to the development of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. “Around 1978,” he said, “I came up with the idea of improving our instructional capabilities by conducting in-depth research into violent criminal personalities. I suggested we go into the prisons and interview violent offenders to get a better handle on them and to formulate a foundation for criminal profiling. If I were in California, for example, I would contact our training coordinator there and have him set up interviews at local prisons with people like Charles Manson or Sirhan Sirhan."
Gacy was among the interview subjects. To Ressler’s surprise, they knew many of the same neighborhoods in the Chicago area. "We had lived on the same street," he recounted, “about four blocks from each other. It was eerie to be with him. I’d gotten into the investigation on that case with the police after they’d already developed him as a suspect for a missing kid and then started finding the bodies. I helped them sort out what they actually had from the standpoint of a multiple homicide. I also helped them prepare the prosecution."
Ressler remembers Gacy as manipulative but transparent. "He was gregarious and outgoing enough in the many interviews I had with him that even in his attempts to manipulate, he revealed a great deal of his personality and his patterns and motives. He'd get angry and then friendly. In a single session, we'd go through a gamut of emotions. A lot of it was play-acting on his part, but we seemed to get along real well. There was no misperception, however. I was there to dig him in deeper. I believed he was responsible for more than 33 homicides. He’d traveled to 14 states during the time that all this went on, so I was trying to get more information. He was trying to maintain his status quo as a victim."
In his FBI memoir, Whoever Fights Monsters, Ressler provides more impressions. He recalled that Gacy had said many things Ressler disliked, such as when he insulted his victims, but to maintain their rapport, Ressler had remained objective. Gacy seemed to have several different threads of a story, some of which contradicted others. Like a salesman with a defective product, he spoke fast and forcefully. Ressler kept the facts in mind. They always ended the interviews on good terms. At one point, Gacy sent Ressler a self-portrait of Pogo the Clown, enigmatically inscribed, “You cannot hope to enjoy the harvest without first laboring in the fields.” Ressler wondered if this suggested there were more murders. Gacy wouldn’t elaborate.
Although Gacy says nothing particularly revealing in the docuseries interview that isn’t already known, his manner and personality provide some insights. He’s arrogant, controlling, and somewhat smarmy, the type of person who believes he can verbally reconstruct reality. Accepting no responsibility, he seems to think he’s entitled to the benefit of the doubt, when there really is no doubt of his guilt. Gacy sees what he wants to see and believes others will naturally accept his version. Although comments are made that he seems "ordinary" and "normal," he comes across as a pompous, scheming predator. Ressler and Gacy each had their own agenda for the interview, but neither achieved their ultimate goal.
In 1994, two years after this interview, Gacy was executed. If there’s any more to discover, it won’t come from him. The official victim toll remains at 33.
Ressler, R. H. & Shachtman, T. (1992). Whoever fights monster: My twenty years tracking serial killers for the FBI. St. Martin's.